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Category Archives: Discipleship

Cast Your Nets Deeper

(a sermon for February 10, 2019, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 5:1-11)

I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, daily life moves in a certain pattern and rhythm; and that pattern and rhythm exists largely for the purpose of doing what needs to be done!  It’s true, no matter where we happen to be in life (!); from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning, whether the main goal is to get ourselves ready for work, or to get the kids to school on time, or to maneuver through whatever “to do” list stands before us, I think you’ll agree that most of the time our attention and effort is focused on simply taking care of the business of day to day existence!

Every once in a while, however, in the midst of all that routine something happens that makes us profoundly aware of another dimension of our lives; something that reminds us in glorious fashion that there’s more to life than what consumes us in the here and now.  It might be that moment when you’re holding your child (or your grandchild!) in your arms for the first time, and you’re struck with the utter miracle of human life; or maybe it’s what comes in the midst of a particular triumph or tragedy, when all at once you suddenly grasp, if only for a moment, just how precious and fragile a thing life really is.  Or it might be something as simple as gazing into a brilliantly starlit sky on a cold clear winter’s night, pondering the vastness of the universe; and you get this feeling that reaches so far down to the depth of your soul that the only possible response is one of awe, because there’s this palpable awareness of a living God right there with you!

My point is that there are for each of us unexpected experiences in our lives in which the extraordinary enters into the ordinary and the divine is revealed.  And it is in such singular moments that we delve deeper into what life can be and is supposed to be; and while such times might well be clear and confusing, invigorating and exhausting, empowering and terrifying all at the same time (!), these are the events that somehow challenge us to move beyond simply living the shallow, day to day process of life; so to live our lives more fully and, dare I say it, with purpose.  Because these are the things that take us deeper:  deeper into life and yes, deeper into faith… because, really, what are we talking about here if not something akin to a call from God?

There’s actually great precedence for what I’m saying here; holy scripture is in fact, full of stories of men, women and even children (!) who are going about the everyday business of living, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, get the experience of God that calls them to something more.  From Abraham to Miriam to Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah and beyond:  the history and tradition of our faith is filled with moment after moment in which ordinary people, by the graceful intrusion of God, are suddenly given a glimpse of the true depth of human existence that comes from faithful living; and who, as a result of that experience, bravely move out of the regular pattern and rhythm of life in order to go where God would have them go!

And then there’s Simon Peter, whose response to that experience, initially at least, was pretty much the opposite!  You know, I’ve always felt that I can relate to Peter more than almost any other character in the Biblical story, because as you read the gospels, you find that where faith is concerned Peter represents equal measures of bold and enthusiastic bravado, on the one hand, and a spineless lack of commitment on the other; in other words, he’s a whole lot like me and, I’m guessing, maybe you, too!  But, if that’s the case, we can all take comfort in knowing that whatever else one can say about Peter, he always leads from the heart; and ultimately, if eventually, it’s a heart of faith!

This comes through very clearly in our text for this morning, in which Peter, a fisherman by trade, is sitting cleaning and mending his fishing nets, getting ready to put out to sea for the next night’s work; which is basically the same thing he’s done just about every single day of his life.  It’s just another day on the job; except that on this particular day Jesus, who was there on the shore teaching a crowd of people “pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God,” [The Message], asks Peter to take him out on the water in his boat, where he can better speak to the group as a whole.

That in and of itself was an out-of-the-ordinary event for Peter and the other fishermen with him, James and his brother John; but then, once he’s finished speaking to the crowd Jesus turns to Peter and says, “’Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’”  Now, understand that although Peter, James and John were probably capable as fishermen they really weren’t all that successful at it; the likely truth is that the three of them were barely able to eke out a living by fishing, and they’d probably tried just about everything they could think of to increase their catch, without any success. They’d “been there, done that,” so to speak, so you can understand Peter’s skepticism and even a bit of annoyance in his voice when he answers Jesus by saying, “’Master, we have worked hard all night long but have caught nothing.”  (“…haven’t caught a minnow,” is how The Message puts it!) “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

Of course, you know what happens next: Peter does indeed put down his nets into the deeper water, and ends up pulling in so many fish that the nets split from the weight of them.  Likewise, James and John come to help, but so great is the catch of fish that both boats begin to sink! It was the kind of day that most fishermen, professional or otherwise, only dream of; but understand, there was much more to it than that.  For you see, in this incredible moment of abundance out there on the lake a brand new dimension of life was revealed to those three fishermen; in an instant, every old assumption and expectation they’d ever had about life and living was suddenly and irreversibly swept away by the sheer magnitude and power of God’s presence in their midst.

But how does Peter respond to this?  Not with breathless excitement or joyful awe, not even a word of gratitude for the great catch of fish!   No, what Peter brings to this incredible, God-imbued, life shifting moment is… complete and utter fear (!), combined with an overwhelming sense of unworthiness that literally drives him to his knees.  “’Go away from me, Lord,” he says, for “I am a sinful man.’”

Now, we’re not told exactly why Peter reacts this strongly, but we can guess; as we’ve said, Peter’s a lot like you and me, and Peter reacted the way we might react!  After all, it’s not every day that you encounter God, and now, to see God’s power and grace embodied in this man Jesus… well, not only does that reveal something about the nature of the Almighty, it also has a way of revealing everything about you!  William Willimon describes this well: he writes, “God’s holiness is the mirror through which our pretentious goodness is seen for what it really is.”  There, in this mirror, “you see reflected every moment of your life, every secret thought, all the good little things you have done for bad little reasons, the way you live every second for you and you and you alone… who could stand to stare into that mirror for long?”  And who could experience that without being changed?

Well, certainly not Peter, and now suddenly, with James and John along with him, he’s out into the deeper water of life and faith in more ways than one, and it’s an experience both awesome and terrifying.  But it turns out that this is also an experience that brings both an assurance and an invitation: do not be afraid, Jesus says to them in the midst of their fear and uncertainties; because “from now on you will be catching people.”  And, of course, as we know, “when they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Now, did they know where they were going?  Not at all.  Did they feel up to the challenges that potentially awaited them?  Hardly!  Were they suddenly “over” the fear they’d just experienced, or the unworthiness they felt about it all?  Not a chance! But somehow they just knew they couldn’t stand on the shoreline or cling to the shallow waters any longer; because now they’d seen what can happen beyond the familiar waters of their lives, and now there was this challenge… this calling, if you will, to go out and cast their nets deeper than ever before… and so they just had to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

And how it was for Peter that day on the lakeshore… that’s how it’s meant to be for you and me as well.

It’s still how God works: in the midst of all our everyday dealings and the varied episodes of stress and strife, we’re being called cast our nets deeper than we’ve ever done before.  Now, you and I, if we’re being honest about it, do tend to focus our attention on the shallow waters of life.  Like I said before, we’re people who live our lives with a certain pattern and rhythm: we do our best to get by, we try to make ends meet, we approach the future with a cautious and conservative spirit, and we value maintaining the status quo; and we do all this because, frankly, it’s terrifying to do anything different!

But now here’s Jesus, bursting onto the shallow waters of our lives and saying to us, why not go deeper and cast your nets there? Don’t you know, he says, haven’t you figured it out yet, that you are more than simply flesh and blood; that you are more than your job, or your salary, or your daily responsibilities; that you amount to more than a random collection of biographical facts and figures? You are mine, says Jesus.  You are my beloved child!.  And if you’ll only dare to set aside your doubt and fear and cast your nets deeper, I will help you harvest so much more from your life and your living than you ever thought possible.

Even now, you see, Jesus is calling us to the deeper water! And of course, as it was for Peter before us, that’s a scary proposition for people like us.  I’m reminded of a cartoon from the New Yorker from some years back:  a man is talking with a friend about his life, and the caption reads, “This morning opportunity knocked at my door, but by the time I pushed back the bolt, turned the two locks, unlatched the chain and shut the alarm system it was gone!”  Frederick Beuchner puts it another way: he says that most of us would like to say we follow Jesus “joyously and proudly with a spring in our step and banners flying, and sometimes by God’s grace this is so.  But more often than not, we go dragging our feet, wishing we’d never heard the voice that now we can never entirely stop hearing, and knowing that it is never ours that is the power and the glory, but always his.”  But for those who would follow Jesus and would risk casting the nets of their lives deeper, there awaits a harvest previously unheard of:  a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being that invests itself into everything in life.

I know it scares us, beloved, as persons and as a people of faith, and sometime even as a church; this thought of breaking with “the way we’ve always done it” in favor of going deeper with our Lord Jesus, following him to places where we’ve never gone before.  It’s tempting to succumb to this notion that we’d just be better off staying closer to shore where it’s safe and quiet; but I ask you, how would it be if from this moment on if every voice and thought and opportunity before us came with a profound awareness of God’s might and creative power around us and within us?  How would it be if our motivation for each day’s routine of life was based upon the Lord’s leading and not our own?  How would it be if everything routine in our lives becomes brand new because we’ve become brand new; renewed and transformed into fishers of people, bringing the power and glory of our faith in God to family and friends and brothers and sisters we don’t even know yet?

It’s amazing what can happen… your life can change… the world can change!  But it all begins by you and I answering this call to put aside our doubts and fears and be willing to cast our nets deeper.  Even now, you see, Jesus is there, prodding us on to the wonder that is a life of faith; do not be afraid, he’s saying, because, you know what, the fishing’s gonna be good out there in the deeper water; just wait and see.

I pray we have the grace to follow.

And as we do, may our thanks be to the God who calls us now to the overflowing abundance of his grace.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 10, 2019 in Discipleship, Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Made to Worship: After the Benediction

(a sermon for October 28, 2018, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

I hope that if there’s one thing that has become readily apparent about your pastor as we’ve gone through this sermon series is that he really loves our time of worship together!

Honestly, friends; I can tell you that of all the many facets of my work here at East Church as your pastor, it is by far this time we spend together in worship that I enjoy the most and which holds the deepest spiritual meaning for me.  I love the flow and the feel of our worship in this place; the fact that whether the accompaniment happens to be organ or guitar nonetheless every Sunday as we sing our praises unto the Lord we do so with conviction and joy. I never cease to be spiritually moved not only by the moments we spend together in prayer, but also by what you bring to that experience in the joys and concerns that are shared as we ready ourselves for that time.  Needless to say, I never stop being surprised by whatever it is that one of our kids might say during our children’s ministry (!); and I never cease to be amazed by how something I say from this pulpit might just resonate with you in ways that I could not have predicted (understand, friends, there are days when what you get out of a sermon is not necessarily what I intended to impart!  But that’s the Holy Spirit for you, and I stand here humbled and grateful for that).

I’ll admit it; as a person and “parson” who’s a little too much of a perfectionist at times, I greatly value the times when everything in our worship beautifully comes together as one seamless whole (almost as if we actually intended it to be that way!); but I also have to confess that over the years I’ve learned there is much glory in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen between the Call to Worship and the Benediction (I’m remembering a wonderful quote attributed to an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services with the following prayer: “Dear God,” he prayed, “may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”).  But whether it’s all properly planned out or if it ends up happening by the Spirit’s intervention, there’s palpable joy that comes in knowing that somehow, some way, the right thing happens to touch a heart at the perfect moment.  And to that, let me just say that as your pastor, I am fortified by your love expressed in smiles, handshakes and hugs; truly, there is rarely a Sunday noontime when I don’t go home newly reminded of Christ’s presence in my life; and I can’t thank you or God enough for that.

So having said all that, friends, please understand me when I tell you now that as far as this pastor is concerned the very best part of our worship together is… when it’s over!  And no, that’s not because I’m in any real hurry to have our time together end, get home, change my clothes and take the rest of the day off (although I’ll admit that this week a nap may be in order, but I digress!).  No, it’s because everything I’ve been saying here today – indeed, everything we’ve been reflecting on all through this sermon series – comes down to that incredible movement of worshiping God: from our praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God by the reading for scripture and its proclamation, to finally responding to that Word with lives dedicated to faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And while in many ways that happens in the context of our worship, our true response to God really begins the moment you and I walk out the doors of this sanctuary!

You see, friends, ultimately the best part of our worship comes after the Benediction: when what we’ve received and shared in here is brought to a hurting world out there, the divine love by which we’ve been blessed being shared with others in need of a blessing; in the process deepening our own relationship with God, a relationship that cannot help but gird and inform every part of our lives.  When our time of worship comes to a close and the benediction is done, you see, that’s when the Christian life truly begins!

Not that this is the easiest thing for any of us to remember, much less live unto, especially in these times.  I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes it’s very hard to maintain the “attitude of worship” with the act of worship is done!

I remember at different times over the years how the congregations I served would send our youth to church camp for a week during the summer (in the Maine Conference of the UCC, it was always Pilgrim Lodge, but here in New Hampshire it’s the Horton Center), and for some of these kids it was to say the least a spiritual awakening!  The songs, the prayers and the outdoor worship; for some of them it was quite literally a life changing experience as they truly came to a faith in Jesus Christ for the first time!  And when the week was done, they’d come home feeling filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord in their young lives; but sooner or later, as life returned to normal, something would happen. Maybe there was a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; an argument ensuing with a brother or sister; or maybe Mom or Dad simply asked them to pick up their socks at exactly the wrong time!  Whatever the reason, suddenly and inevitably that bubble of hope/peace/joy/love would inevitably burst; and while the warmth of their new-found faith was not exactly lost forever, it certainly got misplaced for a bit!

And the thing is, whenever a parent would tell me a story like that, I got it; because the truth is that it happens to all of us from time to time!  It’s most decidedly not easy to live out of our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed, when all the while the waters of life-as-we-know-it has become muddled by pervasive challenges and lingering uncertainties!  How wonderful it would be to not have to reconcile the joy of our faith to the harsh realities of violence and hatred and all the issues that seem determined to divide us; how great it would be today to simply go home with our hearts renewed and fortified for every good thing that awaits us outside these doors!  Unfortunately, there’s a world outside these doors that would seem to do all it can to work against that, in the process seeing to burst our own bubble of hope/peace/joy/love!

So the question is, what do we do about that?  How do move from the joy of worship to love and faith “after the benediction?”

I think our reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us with that.  A little background:  we’re told that this particular epistle represents one of the earlier letters that Paul wrote, and was essentially a letter of encouragement.  Paul had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be.  In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity.  In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”

But now, you see, this new church was facing all manner of political and social turmoil, not to mention all the persecution that goes along with it.  The Thessalonians had felt this incredible awakening in their faith, and the surge of the Holy Spirit in their lives; and they were convicted in that faith.  But with suffering taking the place of rejoicing on a daily basis, it was now becoming a struggle to hold on to what had inspired them in the first place.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s hard for us to identify with the idea of persecution, at least in the manner that faced the early church; but we do know what it’s like to have the burdens of our lives be so great that the joy of our faith takes a backseat to everything else; the transformative experience of worship little more than a distant memory amidst the struggles and challenges of daily life.

We know all too well how that can happen, and Paul knew that as well; and so in beginning this letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, he offers up a reminder both to them and to us, that whatever the situations of our lives and living God has reached out to each one of us that he has chosen; and that “our message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  In other words, “after the benediction” God wants that experience of his presence and power to continue unabated.  As we step out into the world our joy is to be full, our thirst is to be quenched at the well of living water, and our hunger is to be satisfied with living bread; we are ever and always meant to be connected with the divine in every aspect of our daily lives.

And make no mistake; there’s not only strength that comes from that, there’s also great power.  Actually, what Paul says here is that as a result of that Godly presence in your life, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  Now, I know that sometimes as we read through Paul’s words, he sometimes comes off sounding as if he’s simply saying, “Okay, you just do what I do and do what Jesus says,” and you’ll be free of any and all persecution and relating difficulties.  But that’s not exactly what Paul means here; the original Greek of this epistle in fact suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you’re going to keep the faith in spite of persecution!  It means that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you for the way.  What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on, but that in the midst of it all “after the benediction” you keep an attitude of joy and faith; and that you seek to be and continue to be in these difficult times an imitator of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, we are indeed “made to worship;” but even more so we are made to respond to our worship with lives of faithful service. It’s about being witnesses to the love we’ve known as our own; about being able to say to others just as it’s been said to us, that we are the beloved and chosen ones of God and God; about letting the presence and power of God in our own lives affect a change in the hearts of others while changing the world – or at least a small piece of it – at the same time!

In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks an interesting question, “Do you look like God?”  And as odd as that might sound, he goes on to explain. “They just got back from the funeral home,” Poole writes, “picking out the casket and setting the time for the service.  You had cleaned their house and cut the grass before all the out-of-town family started coming in.  And for a minute there… you looked just like God.”

And then, “they had just gotten her home from the surgery and got her into bed, when they heard the doorbell.  You were standing there at the screen door with a casserole, biscuits and a pie. And when they got to the door and saw you, for a minute there, juggling your Tupperware and your Pyrex dishes on the front step… you looked just like God.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look [exactly] like you.  They are not going to worship you or confuse you [in any way] with God… it’s just that sometimes, you just seem so much like God!”

That’s the stuff that happens after the benediction; that’s how you and I end up being “imitators of… the Lord.”   That’s how we thrive as Christians and as the church of Jesus Christ; and who knows what great things can happen if we embrace the wonder of our faith as we head out these doors today.  Truly, may it be said that even as our worship ended today, our faith and action as God’s people had just begun!

And always, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c, 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

And always, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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